Storytelling has long been used and studied as a method for teaching and learning. According to MacDonald (1998), societies have used storytelling to teach key principles throughout millennia. Likewise, Andrews et al. (2009) explain that storytelling has been used as an information medium in education of all types, including in dentistry, general medicine, law, and business.
Storytelling in the 21st century is made richer and more effective through the use of digital media such as images, videos, and audio files, a method known as digital storytelling. This article provides an overview of digital storytelling and discusses its uses not only in education but also in other fields.
Technology has long been used in classrooms to supplement instructional methods used by teachers. While the 1950s saw the common use of slide projectors and Cuisenaire rods in educational institutions (De Bock, 2019), today’s students are exposed to more advanced technology in the form of digital media, such as podcasts and blogs, interactive whiteboards, and mobile devices. According to a 2019 study on the use of education technology in schools, teachers also found these advanced tools to be helpful in a wide range of activities.
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How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools Have students practice what was learned : 85
Have students practice what was learned
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools Learn new information : 77
Learn new information
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools Have students watch informational videos : 72
Have students watch informational videos
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools Provide tests and quizzes : 65
Provide tests and quizzes
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools See things presented or taught : 65
See things presented or taught
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools Research different topics : 52
Research different topics
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools Create a project for class (i.e. a presentation, video, book) : 51
Create a project for class (i.e. a presentation, video, book)
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools Look up grades : 46
Look up grades
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools Communicate with teachers : 45
Communicate with teachers
How Teachers Use Digital Learning Tools Work with others on projects : 42
Work with others on projects
Source: Gallup; NewSchools Venture Fund
Technology plays a central role in digital storytelling, an educational method that’s seeing more common use in classrooms today. According to Smeda et al. (2014), digital storytelling is an innovative pedagogical approach that can “engage students in deep and meaningful learning.” Moreover, in 2015, Alismail found that digital storytelling is an effective multimedia tool that supports teaching and learning while improving student motivation.
This article provides the definition of digital storytelling, along with the uses and benefits of digital storytelling in schools and other industries. The following sections also discuss the elements of an effective digital story and provide examples of digital storytelling tools that teachers and students can use.
What is digital storytelling?
In its simplest form, digital storytelling refers to the practice of using computer-based tools to tell stories or present ideas (Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling, n.d.). Digital stories have also been defined as multimedia presentations that combine a variety of digital elements within a narrative structure (Digital Storytelling, n.d.).
As opposed to traditional storytelling that uses materials on physical media such as paper, tapes or discs, and film, a digital story uses material that exists on electronic files. As such, digital stories may include not only text, images, video, and audio, but also interactive elements like maps and social media elements like tweets.
According to the Institute of Progressive Education and Learning, digital stories are often presented in compelling, emotionally engaging formats. The concept can also cover a range of digital narratives, including digital web-based stories, interactive stories, and hypertext stories. In hypertext fiction, for instance, readers can use hypertext links to move from one node of text to the next.
As with traditional storytelling, most digital stories focus on one specific topic and feature a particular point of view. These stories can vary in length but educational digital stories can last anywhere from two to 10 minutes (Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling, n.d.).
Digital Storytelling in Schools
Educators in the 21st century believe that technology can be an effective tool in educating the new generation, making learning goals easier to achieve (Alismail, 2015). Digital storytelling has proved its potential as a powerful teaching and learning tool for engaging both teachers and students (Robin, 2008).
Moreover, teachers and instructors can also use digital stories to their advantage. Teachers can create digital storytelling to generate interest and engagement for students of the “YouTube generation” (Dreon et al., 2015). Digital stories can appeal to diverse learning styles, allowing instructors to present abstract or conceptual information in a more understandable way.
Alismail (2015) further states that multimedia tools such as digital storytelling provides students with opportunities to participate and interact in the classroom, while gaining new skills such as synthesis, analysis, and evaluation. Dillon (2014) also lists down a number of benefits associated with using digital storytelling as an educational tool:
Digital storytelling creates space for meaningful listening. Digital stories provide students with the opportunity to digest information in a meaningful way. This is particularly important in an age where people are bombarded with stories and information. Digital stories allow teachers to genuinely engage students in the story’s message.
Digital storytelling persuades the brain and the heart. Digital stories can teach students the value of emotional rhetoric, allowing them to explore new ways of acting or thinking differently. These stories can elicit emotional responses in students and encourage them to pursue topics that they’re passionate about.
The method allows students to showcase their learning to their peers. Students benefit not only from receiving information through digital stories but also from making digital stories that feature their experiences and learnings. The many aspects of creating a digital story improve students’ technical skills and hone research and writing skills as well.
Likewise, the University of Houston’s College of Education asserts that digital storytelling “provides a strong foundation in many different types of literacy, including information literacy, visual literacy, technological literacy, and media literacy.” Brown et al (2005) labeled these types of literacy as “Twenty-First Century Literacy” skills.
Researchers around the world have also found that digital storytelling has brought benefits to students in foreign countries. For instance, in 2014, Abiola found that digital storytelling helped improve achievement in moral instruction for kindergarten pupils in basic schools in Oyo State, Nigeria. Likewise, Grergori-Signes (2014) found that digital storytelling encouraged multimodal literacy in secondary school in Portugal. Hung et al. (2012) also found that learning techniques based on digital storytelling improved motivation and problem-solving competence in elementary school students in southern Taiwan.
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Benefits of Digital Storytelling
according to students
Benefits of Digital Storytelling Improved understanding of subject area and writing, technical, and presentation skills: 45
Improved understanding of subject area and writing, technical, and presentation skills
Benefits of Digital Storytelling Improved research skills: 35
Improved research skills
Benefits of Digital Storytelling Improved overall academic performance: 27
Improved overall academic performance
Source: Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling Around the World
Other Uses of Digital Storytelling
Digital storytelling has also proved to be useful in areas outside of schools. For instance, projects such as Silence Speaks have allowed for the expansion of digital storytelling into the sectors of public health and social services. Digital stories from the Silence Speaks initiative shed light on the structural causes of gender oppression, violence, and poverty while demanding accountability and change at various levels of society (Silence Speaks, n.d.).
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom-based Patient Voices program also uses digital stories to share the experiences of patients and healthcare workers. These stories have contributed to a deeper understanding of patients’ experiences as well as the experiences of healthcare workers (Haigh & Hardy, 2011).
Digital storytelling has also seen use in the business sector. In this field, digital stories are used as tools of user-generated content, with consumers sharing opinions based on their own experiences of a product or service. In turn, these stories serve as a means of increasing engagement with the target audience (Barry, 2018).
Elements of an Effective Digital Story
According to digital storytelling pioneer Joe Lambert, there are certain elements that must be considered in the making of a digital story. While Lambert asserts that the last thing aspiring digital storytellers need is a specific formula for creating a story, these elements can be used as a starting point for the process (CDS’ Seven Elements of Digital Storytelling, n.d.).
Point of view
A digital story allows a writer to experience personal expression. This is supported by Lambert’s view that all stories are personal. As such, these stories should be constructed from the author’s own understanding and experience. This is why many digital stories are written with a first-person rather than a third-person point of view.
According to Lambert, addressing the point of view of a digital story also defines specific concepts that the author wants the audience to realize. Every part of the story needs to help the audience make the realization, so defining the point of view becomes an important part of the editing process as well.
According to Lambert, making a point doesn’t necessarily sustain people’s attention throughout the digital story. Stories that successfully hold the audience’s attention have a dramatic question, which is resolved at the end of the story. To illustrate, an example of the dramatic question in a crime story is, “Who is the person who did the crime?”
Moreover, in sophisticated story-making, the dramatic question is presented in a way that does not call attention to the story’s underlying structure (CDS’ Seven Elements of Digital Storytelling, n.d.). Lambert further explains that digital stories become richer and more complex when authors subvert the expectations established by the dramatic question.
Effective digital stories stir an emotional reaction from the audience. Such digital stories work to discover and pursue a new understanding rooted in the concept of being human (Digital Storytelling: Essential Elements, 2020).
Furthermore, according to Lambert and StoryCenter, a story that involves “fundamental emotional paradigms—of death and our sense of loss, of love and loneliness, of confidence and vulnerability, of acceptance and rejection—will stake a claim on our hearts.” Digital stories that deal with these issues are more likely to hold an audience’s attention and can help authors establish a connection with the audience.
Lambert further asserts that according to his experiences with the group production process, people tend to go out of their way to support others who are willing to tell emotionally charged stories.
Recording one’s voice
The author’s voice can add nuance to a digital story and make it more personal. Various characteristics of the author’s voice, including their pitch, inflection, and timbre, can “convey meaning and intent in a very personal way.” (Digital Storytelling: Essential Elements, 2020)
Lambert explains that there are specific concerns that need to be addressed when recording one’s voice for use in a digital story. For instance, there might not be enough time for the author to sufficiently practice his/her lines so that the voiceover will sound more natural. Lambert suggests speaking slowly in a conversational style and keeping the writing terse to get the best results.
Creators of digital stories also have to be economical in their use of text, dialogue, and visuals. Digital storytelling is principally a visual medium, and storytelling with images means properly using the juxtaposition of language and images to create a narrative. An author needs to consider how dialogue and visual elements work together to create a story in the audience’s minds. Working with directors, authors must also learn how to keep the story visually rich with only the minimum of dialogue and scenes that will move the narrative forward.
Due to the practice of economy, most digital stories tend to be short. Content from digital storytelling pioneer StoryCenter, for instance, runs anywhere from two to three minutes. Limiting the scope of a digital story offers two benefits: the practice makes the story creation process more manageable and it requires the writer to focus only on the essential elements of the story (Digital Storytelling: Essential Elements, 2020).
According to Lambert (n.d.), pacing is considered by many as “the true secret of successful storytelling.” A story’s flow and rhythm determines how it sustains the audience’s interest throughout its duration. Storytellers must be able to pull a story back or move it forward when needed. In some cases, improving a digital story’s pacing requires deciding which parts of the story can be omitted. This ensures that the story’s pacing is as natural as possible.
There are a number of visual and audio effects that can help establish a digital story’s pacing. Quick visual effects and upbeat music, for instance, suggest urgency and excitement. Meanwhile, slower music can suggest drama and contemplation.
A soundtrack can greatly enhance and underscore a digital story, “adding complexity and depth to the narrative.” (Digital Storytelling: Essential Elements, 2020) Moreover, Lambert (n.d.) explains that music in a film stirs up emotional responses different from what visual information suggests. For instance, a swelling treble of strings provides a sense of suspense, while upbeat melodies suggest happy endings.
The soundtrack is often placed at the end of the process of creating a digital story. This makes it easier to screen the story in a draft format first if the story’s length becomes an issue.
Other Elements of a Digital Story
These elements are geared towards ensuring that a digital story is optimized for more technologically adept, more modern audiences (Santos Miran, 2016).
Engagement opportunities. A good digital story allows viewers to interact through a number of engagement opportunities. These opportunities can include sharing information through social media, sharing comments, subscribing to podcasts, and even contributing content.
Technical structure and organized content. According to Santos Miran (2016), a strong technical foundation is essential to a good digital story. Technical tools that can contribute to an effective digital story include a customized content management system, collaboration tools, and an analytics framework for measuring audience behavior.
Visual design. Digital stories should encourage easier reading as well. This is achieved through the use of clear space and the careful selection of fonts and type size. A digital story’s visual design should also be optimized for various touch-enabled devices, different viewports, and varying download limitations.
Examples of Digital Storytelling Tools
Creating a digital story involves the use of a wide variety of skills and tools, including research, scriptwriting, and storyboarding (Ohler, 2006). In most cases, video editing software is also used to put together the final version of the digital story.
The following are digital storytelling tools that can make the creation process easier and help educators and students alike create effective digital stories.
Book Creator allows users to create books of varying sizes.
Book Creator is a tool that allows users to create multimedia ebooks and digital stories. The tool allows users to add videos and audio files to their creations, along with professionally drawn shapes through AutoDraw capabilities. Moreover, the platform allows teachers to set up multiple libraries and enjoy real-time collaboration.
Free version: Available (browser-based)
Pricing: $60 to $120 per teacher, per year. Volume pricing also available upon request.
Deployment type: Web-based, mobile
OS: Windows, Mac
Export formats: ePub, PDF, video
WeVideo allows users to export their videos to different formats, sizes, and destinations.
WeVideo is a video creation tool that’s designed for easy use. The platform is ideal for all learning environments, with a cloud-based deployment that allows for use on any device. Digital stories created on the platform can also be exported to LMS software and video sharing sites such as YouTube and Vimeo. The platform also offers educators a number of resources to enhance their use of digital storytelling, including lesson plans, webinars, tutorials, and professional development workshops.
Free version: 30-day free trial for teachers
Pricing: $299 per year for groups of up to 30 members
Deployment type: Cloud-based
OS: Windows, Mac
Export formats: mp4, mp3 (audio-only exports)
Storybird has an easy-to-use interface for adding images and text to books.
Storybird is a language arts tool that helps kids develop their skills in visual storytelling. The platform curates original art from illustrators into a library of more than 10,000 images. Students can use these images for creating books, comics, and poetry, guided by over 600 lessons, quizzes, and writing prompts from experienced educators and authors. More than 5 million stories have been created on the platform, making Storybird one of the largest storytelling communities in the world (Andres & Poler, 2017).
Free version: None available
Pricing: $4.99 per month (individual yearly plan)
Deployment type: cloud-based
OS: Windows, Mac
Export formats: PDF
Storyboard That’s interface makes it easier to add detailed characters to storyboards.
With over 14 million storyboards created on the platform, Storyboard That is one of the more well-known digital story tools today. Storyboard That offers versatile features that can help educators create content and manage learning in the classroom. The platform allows teachers to use a drag-and-drop interface for creating storyboards and comic strips that help boost student engagement.
Free version: Available
Pricing: StoryBoard That for Teachers starts at $8.99 per month for single teacher pricing.
Deployment type: Web-based
OS: Windows, Mac
Export formats: .zip, .png, .gif, .ppt, PDF
Anchor has a simple interface that makes it easier for users to record audio for podcasts.
Anchor is a platform for creating and distributing podcasts for free. The app can capture audio from mobile devices or desktop computers and provides a wide variety of tools for editing these recordings. Users can import existing audio or video and convert video files into audio or vice versa. Users can also add sound effects and background tracks from Anchor’s library.
Free version: Available
Deployment type: Web-based, mobile
OS: Android, iOS
Export formats: mp3, m4a, wav, mpg
Tips on Creating an Effective Digital Story
Digital stories prove to be effective educational tools in a wide variety of environments. As explained above, there are a number of tools that can help with the creation of digital stories, whether these stories are ebooks, podcasts, or videos. Below are some tips that can help make the creation process easier.
Start with the right idea and scope. For digital storytelling, Lasica (2010) recommends thinking small. It is best to focus on one type of story; this can prevent creators from being caught in conveying all the aspects of someone’s life, for instance. Ideally, the output will be a three to five-minute work that reveals a small, personal truth.
Show instead of telling. Creators must keep this in mind when writing the script. The script must be written economically, with observations instead of inferences (Orech, 2007). For instance, instead of telling the audience what they are feeling, an effective narrator instead shows emotions through body language.
Less is more when it comes to visual effects. While these visual effects can convey relationships between ideas, creators should keep in mind that effects should serve to enhance the story. The overuse of visual effects such as transitions and panning effects can distract from the narrative and the story itself (Orech, 2007).
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